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The hidden benefits of physical touch: Does massage have deeper healing powers than we think?

July 05, 2015 3 min read


Close up of a young woman's face during a massage treatment.

The generally accepted beliefs about the benefits of massage are not a secret. We know that it benefits psychological health by encouraging relaxation and relieving stress, and the physical benefits vary, but it is generally expected to relieve muscular tension and speed up general healing through stimulation of circulation and the lymphatic system. And of course, it feels great!

The physical sensations of massage are surely one of the main draws, but could there be more to that than meets the eye? All beings respond positively to physical touch. It is a very natural and instinctive thing. Some studies have concluded that physical touch plays an important role in the development of healthy behaviour in babies of all species. So much so that survival may not be guaranteed without it.

Our healthy development requires physical touch

Deane Juhan, author of ‘The Physical, Psychological, and Spiritual Powers of Bodywork’ talks about organisms that have not received nurturing touch, saying: "They grow more slowly, have less developed skeletal muscular systems, inferior coordination, depressed immunological resistance, less pronounced pituitary/adrenal activity, later puberties, and are less successful breeders and nursers. They are much more emotionally distressed. They are less lively, less curious, less active problem solvers, less willing to explore new environments, and advance more slowly in all forms of conditioned learning exercises.”

As physical touch isn’t really the kind of thing we monitor, it is easy to overlook its importance in our lives. We might not realise just how much it affects our behaviour. For those of us not lucky enough to have an affectionate partner or close family relationships, we may be so used to the lack of it in our lives that it doesn’t seem like there is anything missing. Yet when we go to have a massage, we relish the experience and can even feel like a new person afterwards. Is that really all about muscular tension or a hard day at the office? Or could it be that there is an instinctual, even subconscious desire for human connection being met? 

Are our reactions telling us something?

A clue to this might be how we feel about the massage therapist. Maybe it stands to reason that if we quickly feel at ease with a new therapist, it’s because we received a lot of physical affection as a child. For those of us who were not so fortunate, maybe it doesn’t come so naturally to relax with a stranger in an intimate environment. Because we are paying for a service and usually with a goal in mind, we might not be totally aware of the source of our discomfort. After all, massage is common, normal and positive – if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be booking in for it!

It doesn’t seem to be the case that the majority of people in society are openly tactile or affectionate. Most families don’t talk about it. If you look at the behaviour of people in big cities, day to day - they actively avoid physical contact with each other on public transport, apologising if they so much as brush shoulders! It’s not something that seems to be considered a health benefit. Another sign of the general attitude towards it is that the health care industry generally labels other industries that offer physical therapies as ‘alternatives’, so it seems that aside from the obvious (think physiotherapy, sports massage) on the whole, physical touch is not considered an essential healing tool.

Benefits of education for the massage industry 

We are very clear in society about what is inappropriate touch – yet we are not so quick to think about there being an opposite, which is quite interesting! Do you think the massage industry could be playing a vital role in personal wellbeing on a much deeper level? Should there be more education (and encouragement) for young families about the benefits of physical touch? Perhaps massage could be marketed as a vital developmental tool, if people were more aware of the wider range of benefits?

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